Smithsonian Magazine articles

by Stanley Meisler

Smithsonian Magazine

Subscribe to the Smithsonian Magazine

Smithsonian - April 2005 The Surreal World of Salvador Dalí
The flamboyant Spaniard often hid his artistic genius behind a perpetual zeal for self-promotion and an obsession with money.
April 2005

Smithsonian - November 2004 Art Deco: High Style
A major exhibition showcases the streamlined, glamorous look that dominated architecture and the decorative arts during the 1920s and ’30s.
November 2004

Smithsonian - July 2004 Of Majesty and Mayhem
An exhibition of ancient Maya art points up the opulence and violence of the great Mesoamerican civilization.
July 2004

Smithsonian - March 2003 Daniel Libeskind: Architect at Ground Zero
From his Jewish Museum in Berlin to his proposal for the World Trade Center site, Daniel Libeskind designs buildings that reach out to history and humanity.
March 2003

Smithsonian - March 2003 Mischief Maker
A rare exhibition of Joan Miró's whimsical, brightly painted bronzes highlights the unbridled playfulness of his later works.
March 2003

Smithsonian - January 2003 Man in the Middle: Travels with Kofi Annan
We travel to Africa with Kofi Annan, broker of the unanimous U.N. resolution to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
January 2003

Smithsonian - July 2002 Gaudí's Gift
On the 150th anniversary of Antoni Gaudí’s birth, adoring crowds make the pilgrimage to Barcelona to gaze upon the Catalan architect’s astonishing and whimsical works.
July 2002

Smithsonian - April 2002 Goya & His Women
A lavish exhibition of the Spanish artist's works, including his famous painting The Naked Maja, stirs new debate about his relationships with the women he painted.
April 2002

Smithsonian - October 2001 Points of View
Artist Paul Signac steps out of the shadow of his celebrated colleague, pointillist Georges Seurat, to star in a new exhibition at the Met.
October 2001

Smithsonian - August 2001 The Painter and the President
In his "Lansdowne" portrait of Washington, as well as those of others, Gilbert Stuart caught the essence of his sitter.
August 2001

Smithsonian - February 2001 William Merritt Chase
Praised by critics, admired by colleagues and respected by students, the distinguished 19th-century artist produced paintings and pastels of gentle beauty.
February 2001

Smithsonian - October 2000 Art Nouveau
Whiplash curves, dragonflies and arabesques abound in a new exhibition celebrating the popular turn-of-the-century style.
October 2000

Smithsonian - July 2000 The Poetic Vision of Spanish Sculptor Eduardo Chillida
Creating monumental works in iron, steel, and wood, Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida has come to see space itself as material to mold.
July 2000

Smithsonian - February 2000 Splendors of Topkapi, Palace of the Ottoman Sultans
Treasures from an Istanbul palace reveal the power and mystique of the sultans who lived here.
February 2000

Smithsonian - September 1999 A Masterpiece Born of Saint Anthony's Fire
Matthias Grünewald’s 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece glorified suffering and offered comfort to those afflicted with a dread disease.
September 1999

Smithsonian - August 1999 Sculpture Blossoms in a New Garden on the Mall
The National Gallery's new sculpture garden offers a bouquet of modern masters.
August 1999

Smithsonian - February 1999 John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent made his fortune and reputation as a portrait painter of beautiful women and influential men.
February 1999

Smithsonian - July 1998 Pierre Bonnard
The masterful modernist manipulated light, form and focus to create color-strewn scenes of everyday life.
July 1998

Smithsonian - April 1998 The Case of the Disappearing Frescoes
How a mustachioed Barcelona artist foiled an elaborate plot to spirit Catalonia's priceless Romanesque paintings away from their homeland.
April 1998

Smithsonian - December 1997 The House that Art Built
Money is no object for the Getty Trust, as it builds its collections and does good works around the globe. Now it has a new home overlooking Los Angeles.
December 1997

Smithsonian - January 1997 Ahead of the curve: the art of Charles Rennie Mackintosh
The Scottish architect and designer, in vogue at the turn of the century, is hot again, and coming to America.
January 1997

Smithsonian - March 1995 At the Hermitage, an artful secret comes to light
A fabulous cache of Impressionist and other paintings, hidden for 50 years, is surfacing in a new exhibit at the Hermitage, Russia's museum of the czars.
March 1995

Smithsonian - May 1994 Take a look at a town that wouldn't lie down and die
The mill closing augured ill for Chemainus. But spruced up, with bright murals everywhere, it's turned into a Canadian tourist haven.
May 1994

Smithsonian - November 1993 For Joan Miró, poetry and painting were the same
And although the works of the noted Catalan artist appear spontaneous and free, they were really the product of disciplined intensity.
November 1993

Smithsonian - June 1993 '...All they are saying is Give Prague a chance'
American twentysomethings are flocking to the city of Vaclav Havel, Franz Kafka, old Beatles tunes and booming new businesses.
June 1993

Smithsonian - May 1993 Say what they may, the feisty doctor had an artful eye
Wielding his throat-tonic fortune, Albert Barnes silenced the critics with a collection, now at the National Gallery, that speaks for itself.
May 1993

Smithsonian - August 1992 The golden age of Andalusia under the Muslim sultans
From the 8th to the 15th century, Islam ruled in Spain's rich southern region; it's priceless artwork is now on view at the Met in New York.
August 1992

Smithsonian - January 1992 Spain's Prado got its start as a storeroom
When the king and queen redecorated in 1818, those old paintings just didn't go with the wallpaper. And there was this empty building...
January 1992

Smithsonian - October 1991 After the Wall, a national treasure is rediscovered
East Berlin's Pergamon Museum, home to a rare collection of Hellenistic art and architecture, now welcomes visitors from the Western world.
October 1991

Smithsonian - August 1991 Long live Paris, with her pleasures and complexities
As an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows us, the queen of cities was definitely the place to be at the fin de siècle.
August 1991

Smithsonian - June 1990 People thought this great church was never to be finished
At Washington National Cathedral, after 83 years of work, plans are set to celebrate its completion - a triumph of faith and reason.
June 1990

Smithsonian - December 1989 Casting a glasnost glow on once-obscured artists
To be an independent artist in the USSR until recently was to live a secret, underground existence. Things are very different these days.
December 1989

Smithsonian - October 1989 The lively rebirth of a battered but indomitable Glasgow
Economic blows and urban blight savaged the great city, a fortress of Victorian grandeur, but now things are looking up.
October 1989

Smithsonian - November 1988 Soutine: The power and the fury of an eccentric genius
Isolated and tormented, he once said that he was going to murder his paintings, but fortunately they are still with us.
November 1988

Smithsonian - March 1988 The world of Bosch
With his bizarre and fearsome images, the enigmatic master of apocalypse still speaks to us across five centuries.
March 1988

Smithsonian - August 1986 Vienna's anguished artists presaged the brilliant city's fate
As the old Hapsburg order disintegrated and anti-Semitism grew, Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka gave form to their foreboding.
August 1986

Book Reviews

Book Reviews by Stanley Meisler published in the Smithsonian...

The Burning Season by Andrew Revkin

The World is Burning by Alex Shoumatoff

Smithsonian Magazine, February 1991

For decades, Brazilian politicians and patriots have concerned themselves with visions of taming the Amazon River basin, an area almost as large as the United States, home to approximately 15million species of plants and animals, tangled under the largest stretch of dense, daunting tropical forest left on Earth.

The Brazilians envisioned bulldozing and burning enormous tracts of the forest, clearing them for cattle ranches and some farms, laying highways across the basin, and fashioning great cities. Most Brazilians knew that some Indians in habited the forest but were not pre pared to find tens of thousands of rubber tappers, relics of the past, still living there as well (Smithsonian. November 1989). As they forged ahead with their schemes, violent conflict became inevitable, a violence at least as terrible as that spawned by the conquest of the American West. Out of that violence came the murder of Chico Mendes, the rumpled. 44-year-old leader of a local tappers' union who had become the unlikely hero of environmental groups throughout the world. The international outcry over his death astounded and unnerved Brazil.

In very different ways, Andrew Revkin, a teacher of environmental reporting at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and Alex Shoumatoff, a New Yorker staff writer, tell the story of Mendes and the struggle over the Amazon basin, a struggle that began with all advantage to the visionaries and developers. Revkin delivers a straightforward and measured account while Shoumatoff offers a meandering, personal narrative. A reader will sense the sounds and smells of Brazil far better in Shoumatoff's book but probably will feel confused unless well acquainted with the story already.

Mendes, a tapper with little formal education, was head of a small union in the rubber-trading post of Xapuri in Acre, the most western and remote 152 province of Brazil. His tappers came out of a moribund industry. Vulcanization of rubber and the birth of the auto mobile industry had turned the 100- foot-tall rubber trees of the Amazon into an extraordinarily rich resource at the turn of the century, attracting tens of thousands of workers from all over Brazil. Brazil was the largest exporter of rubber in the world. But more efficient Asian producers of rubber soon entered the market, and by 1913, Asian rubber production had surpassed Brazilian production. Brazil had a short revival during World War II when the United States found its Asian suppliers under Japanese control. The Brazilian government called for soldados do borracha — soldiers of rubber — to come to the Amazon forest to tap the trees for the Allied war effort. But synthetic rubber and Asian rubber took over the market again after the war.

Without government tariffs to keep out the competition, the tappers could not sell their rubber even within Brazil today. None at all is exported elsewhere. The weakness of the rubber industry and the support of the Roman Catholic Church made it easier for leaders like Mendes to organize the tappers, who had been exploited for decades—kept in debt by rubber plantation owners who paid them a pittance.

Lined up against them were the forces of Manifest Destiny, of modern ism, of inexorable development. The ranchers, as Revkin puts it, were the "pioneers who were leading the country toward its new status as a major ex porter of food." To them, the tappers were merely "an inconvenience that had to be removed from the land along with the weeds and trees." To do so, the ranchers either bought out the tappers or cheated them or frightened them or killed them. Many hired hands were simply pistoleiros with instructions to intimidate and murder tappers and their leaders.

Although Mendes and his tappers organized confrontations that sometimes forced ranchers to back off, his movement might have remained obscure and feeble if he had not been discovered by environmentalists. Fretting over the depletion of the tropical forest and persuaded that the burning of the Amazon—7,603 fires were spotted by satellite on a single "worst" day in 1987—was contributing to a dangerous warming of the planet, environmentalists embraced a dynamic local leader who opposed destruction of the forest to save the livelihood of his people.

Inspired by the environmentalists, Mendes proposed the creation of "ex tractive reserves" in the Amazon protected tracts of forest left for those, such as rubber tappers and gatherers of Brazil nuts, who could extract the Amazon's resources without destroying the forest. Mendes thus was protecting his tappers and helping to prevent "the greenhouse effect" with the same stroke. In 1987. Mendes traveled out of Brazil for the first time in his life, making speeches, conferring with U.S. legislators and accepting awards. He became an international environmental hero, and that infuriated the developers and ranchers even more. "You think it's right that we pay the onus of not being able to develop so Americans can breathe our oxygen?" a rancher's wife asked Shoumatoff.

Mendes was shot down three days before Christmas in 1988 as he walked out of his house into the backyard to take a shower. So many tappers, peasants and their leaders had been murdered in recent years that most Brazilians could shrug at this assassination. Shoumatoff says there had been only two convictions in more than a thousand cases of murder in conflicts over land in the Amazon since 1980. But the murder of Mendes provoked an international outcry, and Brazilian officialdom was forced to investigate. Police arrested Darly Alves da Silva, an unsavory rancher who had long battled with Mendes, Darly's son Darci, and a hired hand, and charged them with the murder. Both Revkin and Shoumatoff however, hint that they believe the Rural Democratic Union (UDR), an organization of rich ranchers, founded in 1985, probably had issued the order to kill Mendes. The UDR, presented as "little more than a club," quickly bought 1,636 firearms "to be distributed to members." Revkin says.

As the murder trial began in December 1990, Darci, who had confessed when he was arrested and then recanted, once again claimed full responsibility for the murder. Prosecutors said his description of the crime did not agree with the evidence. "It is evident that the crime did not happen in the manner he says. The object is clearly to save Darly," said prosecutor Marcio Tomas Bastos. Defense attorneys pointed out that the judge would have to be lenient in sentencing because Darci was under 21 in 1988.

A case can be made that Mendes did not die in vain. The new Brazilian government of President Fernando Collor de Mello, more sensitive to the problems of the environment, has now slowed down development and set aside some extractive reserves for the tappers. Both the environmental and tappers' movements seem more vibrant in Brazil these days. Even more significant, the numbers of killings have diminished. But, as the furor over the death of Mendes subsides, both the ranchers and the movement to tame the Amazon are still powerful, and many observers are pessimistic that the real murderers of Chico Mendes will be convicted.

Smithsonian Magazine, September 1990

This book reads like the screenplay of a science fiction horror movie: a monstrous slick of blackness, engulfing birds and otters and seals before spewing them out as sticky, fluttering, moribund globs, rushes incessantly toward the innocents of Alaska, ready to lash the pristine coast with deadly and indelible filth. A host of tiny people scratch and prick at the monster, yet retreat steadily from the maw of its rage. But, unlike many screenplays, this story has no happy ending, no hero to slay the dragon. The slick is never controlled, and America is left with its worst environmental disaster.

In a swift, unadorned and remark ably evenhanded manner, Art Davidson, an Alaskan nature writer, tells the story of the grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in 1989, the spill of more than ten million gallons of oil into the waters, the frantic and futile efforts to clear the spill, and the terrible havoc visited upon the fragile environment of Alaska.

Davidson finds a good deal of guilt everywhere. Alyeska - a consortium of six oil companies including Exxon had promised Congress and Alaskan officials that it had a contingency plan to deal with any massive oil spill. But its plan, far from adequate at the beginning, grew even skimpier with time and budget tightening. Alaskan officials had looked the other way, too content with the riches from North Slope oil to fret about the peccadilloes of the Alyeska oil companies. To compound the problem, a budget-conscious Coast Guard was relying on an out-of-date radar system incapable of warning the Exxon Valdez that it was heading into disaster.

Davidson does not spare the environ mentalists. Exxon, which quickly took charge of the spill for Alyeska, pleaded for permission to try to burn up the slick and drop dispersants into it. Davidson believes that this operation— though only a partial solution—could have been carried out in open waters without damaging the environment. But environmentalists insisted that Exxon skim up all the oil and cart it away—an insuperable task. By the time state officials agreed to the burning and the dropping of chemical dispersants, a storm had lashed the oil into a frothy, uncontrollable sludge hurtling at the rocky coastline. It was too late to stop the onslaught.

There was then little left to do but try to clean the beaches and rocks of oil, and salvage a few otters and eagles and other creatures by painstakingly removing oil from fur and feathers. The Coast Guard did have the legal right to step in and manage the operation when it became clear that the industry was faltering in its cleanup. But the Coast Guard did not have the resources to do the job quickly, and the Bush Administration did not want government to interfere with the work of private industry.

Although Davidson does praise the goodwill and energy of Exxon once it took charge and tried to prevent a public relations disaster in the wake of environmental disaster, he holds it and the rest of the oil industry accountable for ignoring signals that could have pre vented the spill. The drinking problems of Captain Joseph Hazelwood should have caught the attention of Exxon officials; his driver's license "had been suspended for drunk driving violations three times since 1984." Moreover, Exxon had been sued by an employee who claimed that Hazelwood had been abusive "while drinking aboard ship." Still, the "inescapable fact remains that the chain of command traces up to the company's policy- and decision-makers," writes Davidson. "In both practical and moral terms, Exxon is responsible for the grounding of its tanker."

Yet, Davidson also believes that Exxon devoted more energy and resources to cleaning up the spill and meeting the claims of injured Alaskans than some other company is likely to do in the future. Davidson's conclusions are sobering. The oil companies, with the connivance of politicians, have misled the public for many years. The truth is that "no amount of money spent or personnel deployed can control a large oil spill." Davidson insists that the technology simply does not exist "to deal with spilled oil on the open sea and thereby prevent it from fouling beaches and damaging wildlife and coastal resources." The lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez is that the next massive oil spill may unleash even greater environmental disaster.

Studios of Paris by John Milner

June 1989

Back to top of page

a website

As an Amazon Associate, earns from qualifying purchases

© 1996 - Stanley Meisler. All Rights Reserved.